BDRC, with the generous support of the Khyentse Foundation, has been working with the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation since 2016 to preserve their massive collection of palm leaf Buddhist manuscripts. These manuscripts are particularly important as primary sources for the scholarly study of Burmese and Theravāda Buddhism, Pali philology, history, and literature, as well as regional codicology, pre-modern textual and scribal practices, and manuscript culture.
Recently, BDRC staff visited the FPL archive in Bangkok to watch the FPL preservation team in action and to install new digitization equipment provided by the Internet Archive. The FPL archive holds approximately 16,100 vulnerable manuscripts, many of which were rescued from being sold piecemeal as curios. Starting in 2016, BDRC began digitizing the FPL collection to preserve the manuscripts and make them accessible. Once digitized, the FPL manuscripts will be freely available online into the indefinite future.
FPL staff member with manuscript bundles in the FPL archive. (All photos by Travis DeTour)
BDRC tests new digitization equipment.
Because of the nature of the manuscripts, the preservation process at FPL is specialized. Palm leaf manuscripts are created by etching text into the leaves and rubbing them with lamp black, charcoal powder, or ash. These etchings fade over time and before digitization each folio must be oiled. The oil brightens the etchings so the script is legible when imaged and also conditions the dry, brittle palm leaves. A single manuscript may contain hundreds of folios, making the digitization process laborious. To date, BDRC has digitized 319,194 pages.
Palm leaf bundle during the cleaning process. On the uppermost folio, note the difference between the area cleaned with oil and the rest of the folio.The labor-intensive cleaning process ensures quality images are captured.
FPL scanning technician capturing images of a palm leaf manuscript.